Is this really a new Conor McGregor?

It looks like Conor McGregor, with those same natty suits and trademark strut. And if you’re only focused on his sharp Dublin accent, it sounds like him, too.

But as the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s ultimate showman prepares for his return to the Octagon this weekend, McGregor is trying his darnedest to portray the image of a changed man.

You could be forgiven for wondering if it’s really him up there on the stage in Las Vegas. Can it really be that the same McGregor — who blazed an increasingly bizarre trail of erratic behavior before his fall from fighting grace — has mellowed to this extent?

After a layoff of over a year, McGregor has a fight this weekend, the main event of UFC 246 at T-Mobile Arena against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, and he says that he is focused on it. No issue there, but what has come as a shock to many is the level of reverence the 31-year-old is affording his opponent.

At a press conference on Wednesday, McGregor lauded Cerrone’s career and complimented his victories, insisting that the 31-13 veteran’s legacy in the sport of mixed martial arts is complete.

He shook Cerrone’s hand, spoke well of his snakeskin suit and generally acted like he was hanging out with one of his best buddies. “It is hard not to respect Donald,” McGregor told reporters. “Although there will be blood spilled, it won’t be bad blood.”

All this might not be such a surprise were it not so utterly removed from the McGregor fight fans have come to know and expect. Remember, this is the same McGregor that took pre-fight mental warfare to a new level, often an unacceptable one.

Ahead of his loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018, he insulted his rival’s wife, mocked his Muslim faith and accused his manager Ali Abdel Aziz of being a “terrorist snitch.” Months before that, McGregor hurled a metal dolly through a bus window, injuring several fighters, as he and a bunch of gym mates went on a rampage at the Barclays Center.

He has flaunted his wealth, punched a man in an Irish pub, and been accused of sexual misconduct in his homeland according to The New York Times, all while seeing his career dip from its pomp a few years back. Tapping out to Nurmagomedov was no disgrace — the Russian is arguably the best pound-for-pounder in the world — but it is now 38 months since McGregor tasted any kind of victory. Over that stretch of time, he also dabbled in boxing, losing a highly lucrative match to Floyd Mayweather

“I’ve made mistakes,” McGregor said. “And, you know, I’ve been man enough to admit them and correct them. And that’s what I’ve done. I mean, I might not be perfect, right? But with a good sleep and a full belly, I’m damn close.”

McGregor claimed he drank too much in the lead up to the Nurmagomedov clash, having recently launched his own brand of whiskey. Now, he says, he hasn’t touched alcohol in four months and has found a fresh commitment to his profession.

Saturday’s bout will take place at 170 pounds, the same weight at which he split a pair of contests with Nate Diaz in 2016, and one class higher than the lightweight limit at which he took on Nurmagomedov.

His opponent this time, Cerrone, offers a well-known UFC name and a ton of experience, but gives McGregor the luxury of going in as a heavy favorite. It would be a disservice to Cerrone to describe it as a tune-up fight, but there is no doubt that the organization expects McGregor to win — and that it would throw a major wrinkle in the company plans if he doesn’t.

Cerrone is 36 and coming off a two-fight losing streak, and it has been a long time since he recorded a genuine elite-level win. McGregor, who is already talking about fighting three or even four times this year, clearly isn’t expecting to lose.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is this: will the new-look McGregor be as popular as the irreverent old rogue of times past? He built a following on being the most outrageous man in the business, saying what no one else would say, living life on the edge. Not everyone wants to live that way, but a lot of people surely don’t mind watching others do it.

Now he seems to want his fighting to do the talking. If he can replicate his explosive best, like those famed knockout triumphs over Jose Aldo and Eddie Alvarez, that might work. But it was always McGregor’s unshakeable confidence and refusal to accept authority that set him apart.

He’s acting better: more maturely, more respectfully; more like you’d think an elite athlete should. But will that, in this strange reality of modern sports, be what the public wants?